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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Campaign Beat:' Dem Forum, Tester Meets With Trump, Ads Start Rolling

Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.
Campaign Beat, Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.

Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin discuss what distinguishes the Democratic House candidates, parse Tester's meeting with Trump this week, and talk about the risks and rewards of getting 100 percent behind Trump. Listen now on this installment of "Campaign Beat."

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Campaign Beat our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson.

And Chuck, this week candidates could begin filing for office, and many did in the crowded congressional races. But not everyone has filed yet.

Chuck Johnson: No. And there's strategy when you file. You know, maybe you want to have a press conference with just yourself when you do it. So some did and some didn't.

The big filers this week were legislative candidates. And incumbents want to stake out their seats again, and challengers want to get in there and stake out their positions before anyone else files, so it's always interesting to watch, and the two parties in the Legislature had respective dueling press conferences talking about their goals. It's a lively time at the Capitol when this all happens. But they have until March 12 to finish filing and there'll be lots of scrambling to fill as many legislative seats as they can and all the statewide candidates will be filing sooner or later.

SM: There was also, Chuck, a forum in Helena this week for the five Democrats who want to unseat Greg Gianforte in the House. And their job right now is to distinguish themselves not from Gianforte, but from each other. Did anyone do that?

CJ: I think the main difference I saw among the candidates there was John Heenan came out for Medicare for all, or a single payer system, and that was the main distinction. Although Kathleen Williams said she would like to see people having the ability to start buying into Medicare at age 55. The others mostly wanted to make changes to fix Obamacare. So that was the main distinction I saw, although the questions were kind of Democratic red meat questions that didn't leave a lot of room for distinction.

Jared Pettinato, John Heenan, Grant Kier, Kathleen Williams and Lynda Moss during the Democratic U.S. House candidate forum in Helena, January 11, 2018.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Jared Pettinato, John Heenan, Grant Kier, Kathleen Williams and Lynda Moss during the Democratic U.S. House candidate forum in Helena, January 11, 2018.

SM: Well here's what John Heenan had to say about Medicare:

"Let's be bold. Our health care system is not just a little bit broken, it's totally broken. So let's rebuild it in a way that helps everybody. That's Medicare for all."

SM: And Chuck, that position definitely appeals to the progressive side of the Democratic base.

CJ: No question about it. You know, it might be an advantage to say that in the primary, it might be tougher in the general election when the costs of doing that are brought out. It was an interesting forum. Big crowd. I think more than 100 people crowded into the library, the big meeting room, and dozens more were on the outside and couldn't get in. So it was a lively crowd. A lot of interest. And the one thing that drew the most applause was when candidates said We must beat Greg Gianforte in the 2018 general election, and there was widespread enthusiastic response to that line.

SM: Well there are two Democratic women in the race, Lynda Moss and Kathleen Williams, both former legislators. And Montana, Chuck, is overdue for putting a woman in Congress; Jeannette Rankin being the one and only. Will this be the year?

Kathleen Williams speaks during the Democratic candidate forum in Helena January 11, 2018.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Kathleen Williams speaks during the Democratic candidate forum in Helena January 11, 2018.

CJ: Well that's a good question. I think Kathleen Williams and Lynda Moss both talked about their legislative experience; of course every candidate emphasizes their background, they're the only two that have served in the Legislature and each of them talked about their accomplishments. Kathleen Williams had a flyer at the door with an endorsement from Dorothy Bradley, a former Democratic legislator from Bozeman and candidate for governor in 1992. So, probably easier for them if just one was running, but I think they'll both be probably decent candidates. I don't know how they'll stack up on fundraising or support but they both seem to be pretty strong candidates. The other one, I think, showed very strongly last night was Grant Kier from Missoula who's run a couple of land trusts.

SM: Well we'll keep an eye on all those candidates of course. And Rob, in the Senate race Senator Jon Tester is keeping his name in the news as much as possible these days as he fights for a third term. And he was spotted at the televised meeting this week with President Trump on immigration. And it was a meeting that Tester described as "the best meeting he's had with Trump.

Rob Saldin: And actually a lot of people said things similar to that; people who were in the meeting also people in the media. And so it seemed to be a success for Trump. We might have kind of low standards on this. Trump just totally not collapsing in a meeting like that apparently is a surprise to a lot of people.
You know on the policies in question, Tester is jumping here into pretty polarized debate. Of course Trump demagogued the immigration issue, the wall issue, during the campaign. It really became, I think, more than just a policy issue; a kind of symbolic thing for the whole make America great again outlook. And on the other side it's become very symbolic too. It's kind of crystallized all of the perceived horrors of President Trump: the efforts to stoke the worst kinds of human impulses in his supporters, the racism, the lack of policy knowledge, and disinterest in learning facts, just the basic cruelty. So, I mean, this is kind of the milieu that Tester's jumping into and when he engages on that issue.

Now you know, in terms of the policy, he did come out of that meeting saying that he thought a wall could work at least in certain places.

SM: Here's what he had to say, and this, I think, illustrates what you're saying, is Tester is flexible on Trump's demand for a border wall.

"I do think there are places where a wall could potentially work. I also think there are places where technology would be much better. And I think there's places where we need additional manpower particularly on our ports."

SM: It sounds, Rob, like Senator Tester is willing to help Trump at least save face on his border wall campaign promise.

RS: Right. You know, I think if we put all the emotion of this issue and all the things that it symbolizes, kind of put that aside, Tester's comment strike me as pretty sensible on both policy and political grounds. You know after all, there's already a wall covering about a third of our border with Mexico. So saying that a wall could work in certain places seems to me a bit more of a statement of fact than anything. And in that same interview Tester also emphasizes that he's interested in a kind of long term plan. Again that seems not controversial to me. Who's going to be opposed to that? Of course the devil is in the details and Tester's comments did seem to be exclusively focused on border security. He didn't speak to the economic or humanitarian sides of the issue, but on border security taken in isolation, his comments seemed to be in keeping with how a serious person would approach the issue in terms of trying to find a long term solution.

And of course the other way of looking at it, as you kind of hint at, is from a purely political angle. And on that front, Tester's kind of middle of the road path also, I think, makes sense. He's, of course, up this year and he has to be attentive to where his constituency is on a highly charged issue like this.

SM: Well he's trying to walk a fine line between his base who loathe Trump and the majority of Montanans who voted for Trump.

RS: Yeah and this is a bigger challenge for a Democrat like Tester than it is for a Republican. Tester is not in the position of being able to run just a purely get out the base campaign like we saw Gianforte do just several months ago in that special election for the House, right. Republicans can sometimes do that. Tester doesn't have that luxury. So he's got to, on the one hand, hold his base while also getting a lot of crossover Trump supporters. And you know, I think the way we see that playing out for him is he's taken this approach of saying, look, whether I like it or not this guy won the presidency fair and square. He's going to be there for the foreseeable future. So it doesn't make any sense to pretend that that's not the case or to just reflexively oppose everything, so I'm going to work with him where I can. I care about certain issues, and you know, they have been able to find common ground on veterans issues in particular, perhaps also on some of this immigration stuff.

Now of course the heart and soul of the Democratic base right now, I think, would prefer a much more adversarial kind of position. But my sense is is that the Democratic base is going to be with him no matter what. He's very strong, very popular with his base. They are not going to abandon him especially when they see who the alternative is in November. So, Tester is wise to put more of a focus right now in this campaign year on the Trump crossover voters than to worrying about just playing to his base.

SM: All right. Chuck, the alternative in November likely will be someone who has no problem embracing Trump. Here's a campaign ad from Matt Rosendale.

Narrator: There's a shadow over Montana. An intrusive federal government run by insiders, liberals, and big spenders. They are everything that's wrong with Washington. President Trump and Mike Pence are fighting back. But they need help. Conservative Matt Rosendale. A rancher. Businessman. Proven leader. He'll stand up to Washington and get him out of our backyard. Matt Rosendale means business.

SM: And Rosendale is clearly saying, Chuck, he wants to go to Washington to help the president.

CJ: That's right. He's always been a Trump supporter I think. And the ad is very interesting because visually it shows the shadow of the U.S. Capitol dome spreading over a Montana river spreading over a ranch spreading over a small town. And of course we've got the foreboding voice warning us about the problem. A couple of interesting points. It never mentions that Rosendale is a state official. It shows one picture in the ad of him being a legislator but I don't know if many people would recognize the House chambers. But no mention that he's already elected a statewide leader in Montana. Just a reference to being a proven leader. It's an effective ad.

The other point I'd make is, to date I believe it's just an Internet ad, so it's not running anywhere on TV. Big difference, of course a TV ad will reach many many thousands more people than an internet ad. But I think from Rosendale's standpoint it's a good ad to stake out his position in the primary against some other opponents; one of whom, Troy Downing has already run television ads with somewhat the same message in lining up with Trump as well. So it's a good ad by Rosendale to make the same message, And it's a nicely done ad from a graphic standpoint as well I think.

SM: Well I'll ask you both, and Chuck you first, what happens if Trump continues to keep doing things like making racist comments, and or the Mueller investigation leads to a call for impeachment? What happens then to candidates like Rosendale and Downing who have gone all in for Trump?

CJ: Well that's the $64,000 question Sally. And I don't know. To date they're all in with him. I can remember in 1974 when Nixon's impeachment was occurring, President Nixon's impeachment, Dick Shoup, then the congressman from western Montana, a Republican, was all in with Nixon and he was one of the last Republicans to abandon Nixon and he was defeated in the fall election of 74 by Democrat Max Baucus. So it could have consequences. But Trump, I suspect, is still pretty popular with Montanans as a whole. At least he certainly was last fall, and I haven't seen any indication that that popularity has lessened by very much to date.

SM: That's probably true Rob.

RS: Yeah I think so. I mean nationally we know he's in the high 30s low 40s and there has been a little fluctuation, but that's really been reasonably consistent. While of course that's horrible for a president one year into his first term. It strikes me that it's not going to go terribly lower than that. And you've got to think those numbers, whatever they are at the national level, there are going to be way higher in Montana. So I'm not sure that it's that big of a risk. I mean this is something we've talked about in the past, two years ago during that campaign. Trump has always survived. He does seem to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent to a third of Americans out there in the country as a whole who no matter what are going to be with him. And again that number is going to be a lot higher in Montana and especially when we're talking about a Republican primary. These are Trump voters and this is a Trump state at the end of the day, so it seems like a pretty reasonable political calculation to cozy up to him and it's out of the Gianforte playbook. Remember when he ran for governor he kept Trump at arm's length. When he ran for Congress just a few months later, he totally embraced the entire Trump message and [it] paid off for him.

SM: We'll have to wait and see what 'no matter what' becomes. You've been listening to Campaign Beat, our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson. Guys thanks. We'll talk again next week.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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